As we were putting together this month’s Made in America feature, I could not help but notice the many parallels between manufacturing and mechanical contracting.
Maybe that’s just because we’re all a part of one big happy (or, as the economic winds blow, not-so-happy) economy, all drawing from the same labor pool, all feeling the push and pull of the same macroeconomic forces.
I think another factor is the hands-on nature of both industries; for all the technological advances we’ve seen in recent years, there are some tasks in both manufacturing and in contracting that simply can’t be automated or done remotely.
Yet, because manufacturing happens in a much more controlled environment (the factory), it leads contracting in the use of automation, particularly robotics. And until they build a plumbing robot manufacturing probably always will.
Which is not to say that contracting isn’t making leaps and bounds in that direction. A lot of the prefabrication facilities used by larger mechanical contractors are every bit as busy, efficient, safe and productive as any factory floor.
The use of CAD, BIM and other digital design tools have bled from manufacturing into contracting. Now entire buildings are designed with the same precision as the pumps, boilers and valves that go into them. All the different trades all working off the same 3D (sometime 4D) model, with changes instantly propagating to all the different teams; with every step of the project scheduled with help from algorithms; with clashes and conflicts all resolved before they even come up.
And in terms of the software that manages their employees or faces their clients, there isn’t really much difference at all. (Read how one contracting firm, UMC, is moving to the cloud to streamline its HR and payroll systems.)
Both industries are finding it difficult to hire. Both have been hit by decades of parents and educators telling kids that college is the only viable path to success. In both industries the best, most experienced workers are now approaching retirement and there are just not enough young people in the pipeline.
Now, the two industries are partnering in ways large and small to try and get younger people excited about working with their hands. We have plenty of examples throughout this issue. Read how RIDIGID is trying to get kids interested in STEM. How MyWIC is getting girls interested in the construction trades, and how Xylem is encouraging young people to take an interest in the world’s water challenges.
The manufacturing sector in the US took a harder hit than contracting in the 70s and 80s when then price of moving manufactured goods dropped so low it made sense to offshore production. Suddenly, domestic manufacturing jobs that offered a living wage seemed thin on the ground. (Let this serve as an object lesson to young people starting out in the trades—they will never be able to offshore a visit from the plumber!)
But American manufacturing has been making a comeback. Part of the reason is economic: a rising middle class in many parts of Asia means the cheap labor that fueled offshoring is running low. Part is geopolitics; cooling relations with China and war in the Ukraine. Part of it is practical: during the COVID pandemic, we discovered there were critical pieces of our supply chain we didn’t want dependent on foreign countries. Add to that new federal investments in things like electric vehicles and semiconductor chips, and it looks like American manufacturing could be in for a renaissance.
And let’s hope it’s a tide that lifts all boats. Contractors, after all, depend on manufactured tools and materials to get their work done. Being able to source domestically means helping to build a stronger, more stable economy that benefits us all.